Dear Diary (January 2014)

january ddToday is my spiritual birthday!  I made my commitment to Jesus Christ eighteen years ago!  (Does this make me an “adult” Christian now?  Can I vote?  I vote for grace.)

I rang in the new year with my best friend Erica and the cast of Downton Abbey.  As you may recall, one of the keys to my productivity is that I’ve effectively cut TV out of my life.  However, Eir decided to sabotage my life by forcing a Downton addiction on me, lol!

Photo credit: Ashley Thorman Top: Eir, Ash, Amanda Bottom: Jackie, Dora

Photo credit: Ashley Thorman
Top: Eir, Ash, Amanda
Bottom: Jackie, Dora

Early in the month, we in the Cities were blessed by a visit from Dora, one of our favorite out-of-town friends, so a crew of my favorite people all hung out together.  So lovely, although we missed Des!

Speaking of Des, I was able to get lunch with her on one occasion and coffee on another, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am that my former roomie and her husband live only two buildings down from me …

… especially because I had not one but two flat tires this month!  Yeah, seriously.  The one went out, and then one week later, another followed suit.  The first time around, I handled it well.  I’m fairly independent.  I called AAA, and I took it to Tires Plus, and I shelled out the three bills it took to get two new tires and an alignment.  But when it happened again a week later, I have to admit, I cried.  I so desperately wanted to not be a grown-up in that moment.  My delightful parents came to Minneapolis that weekend and rescued my car, dealt with it all for me.  I felt a little like a baby, and it. felt. great.  Des’s husband Matt drove me to and from work for a couple days.  (Thanks, Matt!)

Then my heater quit working the following week.  Did I mention that it’s been dangerously cold in Minnesota?  We’re talking 60 below wind chill.  So … I am really thinking that my book advance might need to go toward a new car.

My book showed up on Goodreads!

Photo credit: Ashley Thorman
Me, Eir, Des

I celebrated my birthday with some of my favorite girls!  Eir made dinner for me, Des, and Ashley.

As for the next novel, it’s coming along quite well!  (I know I was just complaining about anxiety, but the writing is [mostly] faring well.)  I’ve met some friends on Twitter who use the hashtag #wewrotetoday to help encourage one another and keep each other accountable.  I’m loving it!

Writing a novel means that you have to do a BOATLOAD of research (and sometimes it’s all for just a small detail that most readers aren’t even going to notice).  Lately I’ve had to research woodworking, crown moulding, various sounds, and incomplete spinal cord injuries.  Unlike a non-fiction writer, the novelist can (sometimes) get away with not becoming an actual expert in the various areas.  We do this through skillful (and maybe manipulative) omission of facts, by insinuations, and by using vagueness to our benefits.  I’ll be honest though: sometimes it doesn’t work.  I do my very, very best.

One more exciting thing: I finally saw my contract.  I’m thrilled.  I’ll be signing any day now (once my agent irons out a couple wording issues!).

So that’s my January!  I’m really excited for February, because I’m participating in a reading on Tuesday, February 11th, at the University of Northwestern — St. Paul.  I’ll be reading excerpts from Truest and (I think) doing a Q & A afterward.  If you’re in the Twin Cities, you should come!  (More details soon!)

Writing a Novel in Layers

For me, layer one is dialogue/characters.  My first draft is almost entirely just a series of conversations.  This helps me get to know my characters, what they want, what they believe, how they feel about each other and the world.

After that, I’ll need to go through and make sure that the plot works, that all events naturally flow into one another and are connected the right way.  I’ll have some beta-readers take a look and they’ll point out big plot holes, inconsistencies, gaps in action, times when what my characters do seems highly unlikely.  I’ll re-write again and get the series of events in order.

Next, I need to work on the setting.  I am very negligent in the description department, so I have to take a pass at the novel focusing entirely on this area.  With my last book, I wrote “SEE TASTE HEAR TOUCH SMELL” at the top of a page and went through the story scene by scene, writing down what I would “SEE TASTE HEAR TOUCH SMELL” in each one.  Then I went back through the novel and grafted those descriptions in– seamlessly, I hope!

Finally, language.  I take a fine-tooth comb and crawl through the manuscript looking for opportunities to use better words (note: better— that doesn’t mean longer, stranger, fancier) and images.

layers math

Other writers do it differently– and that’s perfectly fine.  In order to not overwhelm myself, I essentially need to focus on one specific item at each “pass.”  That said, if I do find other things to change, I change them as I go.  So, really, more is happening than just the one concentration, but that one thing is at the forefront of my mind.

I’d love to hear from other writers!  What’s your crafting process look like?  Do you focus on one area at a time or do you revise in another way?  

Reviews: 4 Books of Poetry

I have been trying to incorporate more poetry into my life, so as to let it infiltrate my writing.  (Did you know I focused on poetry– and not fiction– in college?)  Here’s what I’ve been reading:

poetry1A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

A lovely collection of very Oliver-esque poems, focusing often on nature and setting.  Easy to access; beautiful, spare language.  Smacks of loneliness in a achingly pleasant way.  My favorite collection of hers still remains Thirst.

poetry2Tickets for a Prayer Wheel by Annie Dillard

So fascinating to dive into this book right after the clear, accessible poetry of Mary Oliver.  Dillard’s poems are deep, complicated, long, confusing, unavailable– and lovely.  I often feel this way when I’m reading her prose too: as if it is a fire; that is, I’m not certain of what is going on, but I want to move in closer anyway.  The breadth of her vocabulary is astonishing, and these poems stretched my mind in the best way possible.

poetry3Every Riven Thing by Christian Wiman

There is an urgency to these poems, and no wonder: Wiman has a rare, incurable form of cancer.  With a toe over the cusp of eternity, Wiman dives into deep and fascinating concepts.  He talks about spirituality without ever declining into sentimentality.  Incredible collection.

dobbyIt Becomes You by Dobby Gibson

I was blown away by Gibson’s thought-provoking poetry.  He has a very contemporary, Billy Collins-esque feel to his work, though perhaps grittier.  I felt like every poem stirred questions in my heart.  Loved this collection so much that I immediately purchased his other two– Polar and Skirmish.

P.S. It appears that I am prejudiced against books that do not have gray covers, but it’s not true.  I have room in my heart (and collection) for covers of all colors.  Except maybe hot pink.

Is “Anxiety-Free” a Myth?

When I was a child, I thought, “If I could just know that I loved God, I would be totally and completely happy.”

If only it were this easy.  Or is it?

If only it were this easy. Or is it?

When I was in high school, I thought, “If I could just know that God was real, I would love life.”

When I was in college, I thought, “If I could just know I was going to heaven, I’d be the most joyful girl in existence.”

Then, “If only I could write a good book.”

“If only I could get an agent.”

“If only I could get a book deal.”

Yet, here I am, I love the God I know is real, the God who has saved me.  I’ve written a book that an agent and an editor love enough to publish.  And I think, “If only I could write another good book.”

I don’t want anxiety.  I want to be happy, to feel peace.  Is it human nature to always want the next thing, whatever it may be?  Don’t get me wrong.  I am happy, joyful even– but still not anxiety-free.

Don’t Push the River [& other advice]

Last month I was stressing out intensely over writing my next novel.  We’re talking panic, high stress, extreme anxiety, the whole shebang.  There’s a head game in writing, and I was losing it.  Badly.

I reached out to my undergraduate writing instructor, Judith Hougen.  She was a mentor to me in college, and in many ways, she still is today, even though I don’t get to see her nearly as often as I’d like.  I’ve written about Judy on my blog before: how she is laden with wisdom and creativity, how she loves truth and beauty.

We got coffee, and I shared how stressed I was, then I waited for her wisdom.  She said:

InWater1 by carpeemorteem via deviantART

InWater1 by carpeemorteem
via deviantART

Don’t push the river.

The full proverb is “Don’t push the river; it flows by itself.”

A river is going to go where it wants, carve out the path it chooses.  I’m a fool if I think that I can redirect it– or that I somehow keep it flowing.

It quite fascinated me because one of the things that my cognitive-behavioral therapist said to me (digitally recorded for all time in my ERP exposure recording) was this:

“I want you to close your eyes and imagine you’re standing in a river.  The current is strong, and the waters rush past you, pounding you, beating against your legs, hips, waist.  Eventually your whole body is fatigued; your legs are so tired you can barely stand.  Then you finally turn around and let yourself go with the current.”

His point was plainly and simply that he was offering me relief.

And that’s what Judy was offering too.

Judy said, “If you skip writing one night, you have to trust it’s not all going to leave you.”

Judy said, “Let the writing of this book be its own experience.  Don’t compare it to the last one.”

Judy said, “Respect the mystery of writing.

It was like balm to my anxiety-riddled soul.  I am letting her words minister to my writer’s heart.  And letting my one word for 2014– grace— work its way into the cold and lonely places in me like an adhesive that holds me together.

Writing or Having Written?

There’s a famous Dorothy Parker quote: “I hate writing; I love having written.”

Someone recently reminded me of this quote, and I argued back immediately, “No, I love writing itself!”

Here is where I will now contradict myself:

I love writing.  What can be more enjoyable than experiencing magic while it is happening?  To let the keystrokes happen almost of their own accord.  To encounter storylines that I could have never dreamed of on my own.  Or to press hard into a challenge and discover a solution.  This is the brilliance of writing, of being in the minute, of loving each moment as the words fly from you.

I love having written.  Lately, writing has been producing so much anxiety in me.  It’s different than my OCD anxiety though.  It’s more of a fear of the future and a fear of failure.  Part of it is that I’m writing on a deadline again for the first time since college.  Part of it is working on a first draft of a character-driven novel where I’m not certain the characters are strong enough to drive it.  Part of it is that it’s simply what writing is like.

I do know that I need to get my anxiety under control again.  I have a couple ideas:

* Post my First Draft Manifesto in places where I will see it often.
* Start using Valor, a blend of essential oils that’s been called both “a chiropractor in a bottle” and “courage in a bottle”
* Meet with writing mentor for some valuable wisdom on the writing life and how to win the head game [edit: did this and will post about it tomorrow!]
* Give myself grace
* Chat with my psychiatrist about this recent flare of anxiety

Any other suggestions?  My writing life as of late has been like a roller coaster of self-doubt, and I need to get this under control.  In other words, I need to not only love having written … I need to love writing itself.

My friend Anna posted about this on her blog today as well!  Check it out here!


16 Things I Wish I’d Known as a Beginner Novelist

16 things1. This journey is probably going to take longer than you think.
In fact, you might bust your butt on something that never sees the light of day.  It’s okay.  You become a better writer by writing.  I had to write a novel to prove I could write a novel before I could write a good novel, if you follow me.

2. Write because you love it, not because you want to be published.
You might never have your work published.  If you write because you have to write, because you’re a writer in your bones, then this won’t matter.  (Or at least it won’t matter enough to stop you!)

3. Write every day …
Establish a writing routine, even if some days you only get ten minutes to write.

4. … but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t.
I’m still learning this.  GRACE.

5. If you start a website, don’t waste time thinking of a clever blog title.  Just use your name.  
With WordPress and $18 a year, you can even buy your own domain so that you can just have www. [yourname] .com.  Trust me.  It’s going to be better for branding yourself as a writer someday. 

6. Learn blog etiquette.
Make a commitment to post on your blog at least once a week.  Also, don’t solicit readers by posting links to your content as a comment.  The best way to get readers is to read other blogs and leave thoughtful comments.  They’ll be much more likely to visit yours that way than if you use their comments section as your own personal ad space.

7. Join a writing group– or at least collect some beta readers.  Preferably both.  And take their advice.
Make sure they actually know what good literature is.  They should be good writers themselves or at least good readers.  And do take their advice or at the very least try it out.  No one said you have to keep your revisions.  Take their feedback, make revisions, and then decide whether to take it or leave it.  It goes without saying (I hope) that all this should be done without putting up a fuss.  You need feedback to make your writing sparkle.  Well, at least most writers do.

8. Genres have word count guidelines.
Debut authors should be especially aware of this.  Many literary agents won’t even bother with a manuscript that falls outside the genre word count guidelines.  (Not that it has never happened– but it’s the exception, not the rule).  There are detailed posts about this at Literary Rejections and Writer’s Digest.

9. Set aside some money to devote to your craft.
You can use this money to take a class, attend a workshop, or hire a professional editor.  Yes, a professional editor in addition to your writing group and beta readers.  The more [qualified, capable] eyes on your novel, the better!

10. Join Twitter.
I can hear some of you groaning.  I did too.  Who needs one more social media avenue?  You do.  It’s a great way to connect with other writers (amateur and professional!).  You can also start following literary agents and editors to learn more about the industry.

11.  You’ll need an agent.
I didn’t know this.  To be honest, I’d always thought that you sent off your completed manuscript directly to publishers.  But there’s a whole chain of command.  You’ll need to write a query letter (in some ways, this is harder than writing the novel itself!) that you’ll send to literary agents.  Once a lit agent signs you, it’s your agent’s job to sell your manuscript to an editor.  Novelists should wait to have a completed manuscript before beginning the querying process.

12. There are great resources out there for how to write a query letter and what agents are specifically looking for.
If you spend two hours on Rachelle Gardner’s blog, you’ll have the basics of querying down.  Best places to find what agents are looking for include Writer’s Digest’s Guide to Literary Agents, the author acknowledgements in the backs of your favorite books, and, especially the “backward” search that allows to look up an author and find out who reps him or her.  From time to time, literary agents on Twitter will hashtag things #mswl (manuscript wishlist), and this is super helpful and often gives you more specific, up-to-date information than their websites.  Remember that money you set aside (#9)?  Use it to attend a conference or workshop where literary agents will be in attendance.  Sometimes you can meet them and deliver your pitch in person.  (I’m not talking about stalking and cornering here; there are actual times and locations and events set up for this to occur!)

13. Rejection is inevitable, and it hurts.
I’m not sure if knowing this ahead of time helps things or not.

14. Read like crazy.
Everything [good] you can get your hands on, but especially in your genre.  And add a healthy dose of poetry for good measure.  Also: blogs, especially those of authors and literary agents and others in publishing, but also book blogs to keep your finger on the pulse of what is trending in your genre and what readers are looking for.  That said …

15. Write what you’re passionate about, not what’s trendy.
By the time you finish your novel about [insert trendy, current topic here], the topic will probably no longer be trendy or current.

16. The most important thing is that you write a great book. 
Ignore whatever you want on this list, but write an amazing book.  A writer who follows all the rules but writes a sub-par book probably has less of a chance at publication than one who bucked all the rules but wrote a masterpiece.

[I searched online, but could not figure out whom to credit for the original image of the white frame on the green wall.  If you know or find its original owner, let me know.]

Divergent, Katherine Tegen Books, & Contemporary Novels

divergentI recently finished Divergent by Veronica Roth, and I. Loved. It.

The book is set in post-apocalyptic Chicago, where the city is divided into five factions, each based on what they most value.  Abnegation values selflessness; Erudite values knowledge; Amity values friendship; Candor values truth.

And Dauntless?  It values fearlessness, bravery, courage.

Beatrice Prior is sixteen, so it’s time for her to choose a faction.  Should she stay in Abnegation, where she was born and raised, or should she leave her faction for a new one?  Her choice changes her life.

As many of you know, dystopians are not typically my first choice to read, which is why it took me so long to pick this one up (I bought it about a year ago!), but I shouldn’t have waited.  It was delicious.  The characters are fabulous, the world-building is incredible, and action is non-stop.  And it’s safe to say that Four, the love interest, will be pushing others further down on my Literary Boyfriends List.

One thing that is super exciting to me is that the Divergent series is published by Katherine Tegen Books, my new publisher!  I feel incredibly blessed and humbled to be invited into the publishing family that published Divergent!  Every once in a while it will hit me that the same people who gave this incredible book its wings into the world are doing the same for Truest.

What I loved the most about Divergent are the characters themselves, the relationships between characters, and the ideas and concepts that it helps you to process.  It’s almost always this way for me.  I value characters, relationships, and ideas more than world-building, action, adventure, setting, etc.  I think that’s why I’m drawn to writing contemporary, realistic novels– because they allow me to focus on the former more than on the latter.  (Don’t misunderstand me: setting and plot are still terrifically important!  But characters are always first in my book.)

I feel that I’m not explaining myself well (maybe because I’m writing this near midnight).  To be clear, I loved Divergent.  Veronica Roth did an amazing job.  What I’m saying is that she made me fall in love with her characters, and once that happens, the rest is (nearly) moot to me.  I love Tris and Four, and so Roth could make them do almost anything, and I’d be invested.  In other words, their story (for me) wouldn’t have to be about factions in post-apocalyptic Chicago.  I feel the same way about Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys.  I am in love with Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, Noah, and the rest– and so the book wouldn’t even have to be about awakening a Welsh king or a family of psychics.  I mean this as a tremendous compliment.  I only hope that one day people love my characters this way.

I often think that this disproportionate love I have for characters over action is what has made me so at home with contemporary novels.  (Along with my sorry lack of world-building skills!)  Heaven knows I love magic and fantasy as much as (read: more than) the rest of the world, but I do think that there is tremendous magic in daily life: dynamic discussions, building one’s worldview like a tenuous fort, falling in love slowly and deeply, watching fireworks from a rooftop patio, talking about words in a field of wind turbines that skulk like monsters.  These things become fantastic if they are spent with characters who are beloved.

I hope this post makes sense.  To summarize: I am besotted with Divergent and wish I wrote it; I am in love with Four; I value characters more than anything else in a story, and I think that’s why I write contemporaries.

Edit: Since I originally wrote this post, I finished the whole series, including Insurgent and Allegiant.  At the time of writing this, I just finished Allegiant about five minutes ago.  I’m grappling with a lot of things right now and loving that literature presses us to do that.  So powerful.

Theme Hopping

Recently someone emailed me and asked if my OCD was more about worrying about hell than it was about worrying if God was real, and I had to say honestly that after twenty-five years of OCD, there aren’t a lot of themes I haven’t experienced.  Is God real, is Jesus real, is heaven real, is Christianity legitimate, was Jesus really God’s son or was he the devil in disguise, have I committed the unpardonable sin?  OCD can cycle through a lot of themes in a quarter of a century.

That’s the thing with OCD: it often doesn’t remain in one place.  When I was still in high school– and even into my college years– I kept thinking, “If I could just sort out X, then I would be happy.”  So I’d wrestle with X, read books about it, seek reassurance, talk things over with my youth pastor and parents, research things online … and if I was ever able to “solve” it, then … my OCD moved onto Y.

Hitman: Contracts by TheKingArthur at deviantArt

Hitman: Contracts by TheKingArthur at deviantArt

I was in perpetual motion for so many years– but I never got anywhere.  It was all spinning my wheels.

Exposure and response prevention ignores the emergencies that OCD is sparking in every corner and goes after the OCD itself.  Instead of relying on compulsions, which temporarily help to “solve” individual issues, ERP is like a hitman with a mission to assassinate the OCD.

You can see why one is far more preferable than the other.